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Budget Dispute Goes On, but So Do Talks

Ventura County sheriff, D.A. and executive meet as supervisors battle funding suit in court.

August 22, 2004|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Even as Ventura County supervisors are aggressively attacking a public safety funding law in court, the county's chief executive has been quietly meeting with the sheriff and district attorney in an attempt to settle differences.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston last week said he has been in regular contact with Sheriff Bob Brooks and Dist. Atty. Greg Totten since they filed suit last fall. It alleges that the Board of Supervisors has shortchanged public safety budgets for three years, violating a county funding ordinance.

Supervisors have put up a vigorous defense, arguing that the law is unconstitutional and, if left unchecked, would eventually bankrupt the county. Brooks and Totten won the first legal round in July when Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh ruled that the 1995 ordinance was constitutional.

After hashing out their options in closed session, the supervisors unanimously agreed to appeal Walsh's decision to the state Court of Appeal.

In the meantime, Johnston, Brooks and Totten have continued meeting, most recently at a lunch two weeks ago, the county executive said. Though they have yet to reach a settlement of the case, which has cost taxpayers about $1 million, both sides portrayed the talks as beneficial.

"We talk back and forth regularly, because no one wants to see this lawsuit cost the public any more money," Johnston said.

Totten said he too wanted to keep lines of communication open, even though he was not optimistic that the county board would seriously consider a compromise until the appellate court has ruled.

"Any dialogue is good, and I still think this is something that can be resolved at the table under the supervision of the court," the district attorney said.

At the heart of the dispute is a decade-old funding law enacted by the Board of Supervisors after supporters had gathered enough signatures to place it on a ballot.

The ordinance funnels proceeds of a 1993 half-cent sales tax increase, about $50 million a year, to public safety agencies. An amendment to the ordinance grants inflationary increases -- no matter how high -- to be paid out of the general fund.

Concerned about spiraling law enforcement costs, a new county board voted in 2001 to cap the inflationary adjustment at the consumer price index. Since then, the sheriff's and district attorney's costs have far outstripped their budgets, causing significant service reductions and, this year, the layoffs of 40 civilian jail employees.

In their meetings, the three men have attempted to find common ground -- though it has become increasingly difficult amid lean budget times and contentious litigation, Johnston said.

At their recent lunch, Johnston said, he offered to "run numbers" on how the sheriff's and district attorney's departments could receive sufficient funding while protecting the county's ability to continue other important public services.

Doing that in a time of declining state revenue is the hard part, the county chief said.

"The idea is that public safety should not get less than their share of the local general purpose revenue because it's our first priority," he said. "But the challenge is how do you craft something that makes economic sense and does not tie the board's hands?"

The formula must be based on the county's ability to pay rather than the guaranteed-revenue formula that triggered the current dispute, Johnston said. Analyses by his staff have shown that the automatic increases written into the ordinance would have eventually stripped the county of any discretionary general fund income.

Another option, which neither side wants to publicly embrace at this point, is raising taxes to fund public safety at previous levels. A sales or general tax increase would be the most likely sources of new revenue, officials have said.

Los Angeles County voters in November will decide whether to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for enhanced police services. Other counties and cities may be looking to the same solution, officials have said.

In Ventura County, two countywide tax increases will be on the Nov. 2 ballot, one to pay for highway improvements and another to buy land for permanent conservation.

"It will be interesting to see what the voters think of those," Totten said. "Right now the county obviously needs more revenue than they have."

Still, he stopped short of endorsing such a tax, calling it premature. Law enforcement officials have also challenged county administrators' budget numbers as too downbeat.

"I don't agree with their worst-case assessment," Undersheriff Craig Husband said. "There are other alternatives available to them. Part of it is controlling costs."

The sheriff and district attorney have consistently stated that any proposed settlement should go on a ballot to receive the official blessing of voters.

If the Court of Appeal agrees to hear the case, a legal resolution may not come for another year. Johnston and Totten said they were committed to continuing their talks, even if they bear little fruit. Brooks was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

"We're all working hard together to provide the best public safety that we can afford right now," Johnston said.

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